Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
I’m sorry for not raising more hell about the mental health and criminal justice systems. —Alan Johnson
I want to reflect on why I did not raise more hell, as Parker Palmer writes, “on behalf of whatever we care about,” in his book, “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.”
She was a young adult woman who was creative, bright, good conversationalist, and was compassionate. So, what happened when the criminal system and the mental health system almost crushed her? While her eating disorder finally ended her life, her mental health challenges were very prevalent. Toward the end of her life when there were no psyche beds in our local area for her to be hospitalized and she was in need, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital hours from where she had been living.
After only a day or so and despite the fact that she was outwardly psychotic, she was taken back to her hometown. She was dropped off at the local homeless shelter. It was the middle of the day. It wasn’t open. She was left without a coat, with no money.
She was hungry; she was still unbalanced and disoriented. She found a package on the porch of a nearby house. She took it, thinking it was for her. She then looked for shelter in a nearby apartment whose door was open. The occupants called the police. She was taken to jail. They considered her suicidal because of comments she made in the police car. While still on suicide watch and psychotic she plead guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing a package valued at $50. She spent three months in jail with little or no access to mental health treatment. Three months of jail time at more than $60/day. Surely we can do better than this
Obviously there was a “lack of communication” between the criminal and the mental health systems. Now that the majority of mental health is being given in prisons which also sets up the tension between punishment and recovery, this woman’s bouncing back and forth finally found a diversion program. The ineptitude is staggering. I ought to have raised more hell about how she was being treated and this in a community which is progressive! However, all the same, when my son has been manic and the police were called in, even when he did break and enter an apartment, they have always taken him to the psyche hospital than to jail I am deeply appreciative of that.
If you are drawn to this conversation about the criminal treatment of mental illness I strongly urge you to read “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” by Alisa Roth. The plethora of stories, the history of criminal justice and mental health treatment, the attitude of making people disappear/become invisible, and the beginning of humane care and compassion will engage and clarify right where we are in our country about these experiences and concerns.
Our United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is assiduously working on ways to engage congregations in understanding and addressing mental health in our faith context. In this nexus of criminal justice and mental illness, I am perplexed. It is so huge; it is so complex. In many ways I do not know how to proceed. Perhaps you are engaged. Perhaps you are working in this context. If so, I would love to hear what you are learning and doing. Do I need to raise some good old hell for what might be more compassionate and just than what I am doing? I think so, even just to give credence to the grief I carry for what I did not do for the middle age woman last year.
And will there be a compassionate gesture, even a metaphorical righteous hand, to uphold those who are caught up, handled with cruelty, and become invisible in the mental health and criminal justice systems? And this God who will not forsake us will strengthen and help you and me? May it be so.
Rev. Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and is a past chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.